Wednesday, Jun 12, 2024

Greatness and Lag Ba’omer

Last week, the eyes of the world were firmly focused on a Boston neighborhood where a single nineteen-year-old monster kept a city at bay, shutting down one of the most powerful and sophisticated metropolises on the globe. Policemen and politicians, all the way up to the president, were focused on the machinations and maneuverings of this lost and misguided soul. His actions and those of his brother reminded us once again about the horrible capacities of man. We all possess the capacity for tremendous greatness, as well as, regrettably, the potential to sink to awful lows. The Shalah Hakadosh says that this is the reason that the Torahuses the word “odom” when referring to man.

The appellation “odom” is intertwined with the word “adameh,” which means, “I shall emulate,” a reference to man’s mandate of adameh le’Elyon, emulating the Divine. Odom is also related to the word “adamah,” the dirt of the ground, the lowliest substance.


In that one word and name, Hasheminvested us with our life mission. Every day presents opportunities to soar to lofty heights and tumble to extreme lows.


Additionally, Odom is lashon yochid, the singular tense, because it possesses another message: each person, alone, an odom shenivra yechidi, can reach the heights of Heaven or the depths of earth all by himself. Man decides in which direction he will go. Every person has free reign over the willpower, energy, intelligence and human abilities that the Creator endowed him with.


Those awful brothers in Boston last week demonstrated how low man can sink.


Lehavdil, when the infant Moshe was found floating in a cradle on the river Nilus, Basya bas Paroh tried feeding him. However, the infant refused to be nourished by an ishah Mitzris. Rashi explains that a mouth destined to speak directly with the Shechinah wouldn’t allow itself to be defiled. Thus, until Miriam brought a meinekes Yehudis, he refused to eat.


The Vilna Gaon writes that this story is the source for the ruling of the Rama (Yoreh Deah 81:7) that although a child may drink the milk of a gentile woman, a Jewish nurse is preferable.


The question is obvious: The reason that Moshe refused the milk was because he was a “peh she’osid ledaber im haShechinah,” the greatestnovi who ever lived, and it would have been improper for him to have been nourished from a gentile woman. His singular situation should have no relevance to the halacha pertaining to the masses.


Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky explained that the Rama was able to derive this halacha from Moshe Rabbeinu, because every Jewish child possesses the potential to become as great as Moshe. Therefore, parents are obligated to bring their children up in a manner that will allow them to grow to that level of greatness. Yidden raise their children with the confidence of “adameh le’Elyon,” cognizant of the possibility of them developing into the moshion shel Yisroel.


Until his first visit to the United States, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman was largely unknown to most people. During one of his largely stops during that trip, he faced a crowd of thousands of American youngsters and quoted to them the words of Chazal relating to the birth of the novi Shmuel.


The Yalkut Shimoni (Shmuel I, 1:78) relates that prior to the birth of Shmuel Hanovi, a bas kol rang out across the world proclaiming that a tzaddik named Shmuel would soon be born. Every Jewish mother named her son Shmuel in the hope that he would be the tzaddik foretold by the Heavenly voice.


When people witnessed the acts and conduct of the Shmuel who would go on to become the novi, they knew that he was the tzaddik referred to by the bas kol.


In his message, Rav Shteinman explained that evident in this Medrash is the intense wish and hope of every Jewish parent that his or her son will bring light and salvation to Klal Yisroel.


Later that night, Rav Shteinman demonstrated the potential that he saw in each Jewish child. The day had begun many hours earlier with Shacharis kevosikin at the crack of dawn. Finally, following a day consisting of a long string of meetings, public appearances, shiurim and visits, he returned to the home of his host in Brooklyn. The elderly sage, who subsists on minimal food and little sleep, had never left Eretz Yisroel since the day he arrived there and had never undertaken as strenuous a day.


As he sat down to rest, he was told that there was a young boy on the porch, desperate to meet him. The child had been turned away and was weeping bitterly. Rav Shteinman told the people with him to let the boy in. As he faced the saintly tzaddik, the boy told the interpreter that he had immigrated to New York with his family from Russia and was a student in a yeshiva for immigrant children. He heard about the rabbi’s visit anddesperately wanted his blessing. With the inbred akshanus, resilience and tenacity that Russian Jewry adopted to maintain their commitment to Yiddishkeit, this boy succeeded in his goal of receiving a brocha for his future success. Blessing him warmly, Rav Shteinman smiled at the child’s dedication, reminding all that everyone is worthy of the same attention and respect. Every person possesses greatness. Every child has the potential to be a savior, just like Moshe Rabbeinu and Shmuel Hanovi.


We never give up on another Yid. No one is insignificant, for each Yid is blessed with a neshomah and the ability to rise above all.


This understanding gives meaning to the celebration of the yahrtzeit of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai on Lag Ba’omer. Perhaps with another story we can better appreciate the outpouring of joy and reverence with which the day of his passing is honored.


A group of askonim entered the room of the Gerrer Rebbe, the Pnei Menachem, who served as rosh yeshiva in the Gerrer Yeshiva. They were involved in trying to find a suitable match for abochur in the yeshiva who had a difficult home situation and background. The dedicated individuals around the table told the Rebbe about a girl they were proposing for that boy. The Rebbe let them make their pitch. Then he spoke.


“I will share with you a rule by which I have always tried to live my own life.. If you give an eitzah, you can only offer it if you would accept it yourself. It is improper to recommend a course of action that you yourself would not follow. I know that your situations are different and that you are more fortunate, but still, would any one of you consider this shidduch for your own sons?”


There was an uncomfortable silence in the Rebbe’s room.


“If so,” said theRebbe, “you cannot suggest it for this bochur either.”


The Rebbe noticed the disappointment on the faces of hischassidim, some of whom had invested many hours helping this particular bochur, and he continued speaking.


“I cannot approve of this solution,” said the Rebbe, “but I can offer a brocha that this bochur should find the right girl in the near future, so that you might see the fruit of your labor.”


As the group rose and prepared to leave, the Rebbe addressed them once more.


“Remember one thing, just as I do: Whenever you deal with Yidden and try to work for their benefit, you must keep the words of Chazal in front of you. Kol Yisroel bnei melochim heim. Every single Yid is royalty. When you set out to help people, you can only do so if you have genuine appreciation of them in your hearts and minds.”


Every Yid isaben melech, with the potential and capacity for greatness.


Who was it who revealed this metzius, the fact that royalty is enmeshed and embedded in every Jewish soul?


It was Rabi Shimon (Shabbos 67 et al), who said, “Kol Yisroel bnei melochim heim,and ruled as halacha lemaaseh that every Jewish person can wear royal clothing on Shabbos without transgressing the prohibition of hotza’ah, because every Yid is a ben melech. Beholding the glory and splendor of every neshomah, he appreciated the greatness inherent in every person. And from whom did he learn this? From his rebbi, Rabi Akiva, who, for the first four decades of his life, was a simple shepherd who no one thought would ever amount to much. But he, too, was a ben melech, and through him the Jewish people were blessed to be led by Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and bequeathed the entire Torah Shebaal Peh.


On Lag Ba’omer, Jews around the world light bonfires and sing songs praising Rabi Shimon and his rebbi, Rabi Akiva. They dance round and round in circles, chanting over and over again the words of Rabi Shimon’s rebbi, “Omar Rabi Akiva ashreichem Yisroel. Praised be the Bnei Yisroel.” Thousands stream to the kever of Rabi Shimon in Meron, and those who are lucky are able to read the words – his words – painted atop the entrance – “Ki lo sishuchach mipi zaro ” – reflecting the greatness of Hashem, His Torah and His people.


We are all familiar with the Gemara which states that Rabi Akiva merited teaching 24,000 disciples, but because they didn’t display proper respect towards each other, they died during the period of Sefirah.


Describing the episode that transpired after the shevotim sold Yosef Hatzaddik into slavery, the posuk says that Yehudah departed, using the lashon of “Vayeired Yehudah.” Rashi quotes the Chazal that the brothers removed him “m’gdulaso,” from his high ranking. Meforshim explain that they no longer treated him as a king.


My rebbi, Rav Elya Svei asked that there is a principle of “ein melech belo am,” meaning that a king only maintains his position when he rules over a nation or an empire. Obviously, at that time, Yehudah didn’t rule over anyone, for Yaakov Avinu was still alive and he was the leader of the family, so in what sense had Yehudah been treated as a king?


Rav Elya explained that the shevotim saw in Yehudah the traits and potential for malchus and thus accorded him the respect of a king. Once they returned from selling Yosef and saw the pain that their act caused their father, they no longer viewed Yehudah as worthy of being a melech.


With this thought, Rav Elya explained why the 24,000 talmidim of Rabi Akiva perished for the sin of not treating each other appropriately. How can it be, he asked, that the disciples of Rabi Akiva, who epitomized the commandment of “Ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha,” could be lacking in interpersonal respect?


Rav Elya answered that Rabi Akiva’s talmidim treated each other with the respect that they deserved according to their status at that time, but they didn’t treat them with the respect they were worthy of considering their potential for greatness. They had the ability and the potential to be as great as the five talmidim through whom Rabi Akiva ultimately passed on the mesorah. Their failure to revere them for their potential is what brought about the gezeirah.


The Rama Mipano observes that not including the nine days when Tachanun is not recited, there are 24 days between Pesach and Lag Ba’omer. On each day, including Lag Ba’omer, 1,000 of Rabi Akiva’s talmidim died. If so, he asks, why the celebration on Lag Ba’omer? The celebration should be on the following day, when the plague ended.


The Rama Mipano answers that the gezeirah included that Rabi Akiva would die along with his talmidim. The day of his death was to be Lag Ba’omer. The gezeirah ended and the dying stopped so that Rabi Akiva would be spared. Thus, the outpouring of joy on this day.


The Gemara in Maseches Yevamos (62b) states that following the passing of Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim, the world was devoid of Torah, until Rabi Akiva approached the rabbonon of the south, namely Rabi Meir, Rabi Yehudah Rabi Yosi, Rabi Shimon and Rabi Elazar ben Shamua. They re-established Torah.


From this we can deduce the great joy that is celebrated on Lag Ba’omer, for it was on this day that Rabi Akiva did not die. Had the gezeirah continued and had passed away, it could have meant the end of the mesoras Torah Shebaal Peh. Instead, he lived and was able to transmit his teachings to the five great tanoim, and through them Torah Shebaal Peh continued.


Rabi Akiva taught that “Ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha is a great rule in Torah,” loving another as you love yourself is paramount to Torah growth and achievement. The idea that everyone is deserving of being treated the way you want people to treat you is centered upon the middos a Jew must embody, as well as an acknowledgment of the greatness of the Jewish soul.


The Zohar relates that when Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, the talmid of Rabi Akiva, contemplated the happiness apparent on the faces of his students, he remarked that because of their joy and brotherhood their generation merited the revelation of the Torah’s secrets.


This Shabbos, the discerning ear will listen toKrias HaTorah of Parshas Emor and hear the song of the moadim, the various Yomim Tovim. For a moment, we feel the freedom of Pesach, the glory of Shavuos, the awe of Rosh Hashanah and the purity of Yom Kippur,followed by the joy of Sukkos. It’s a reminder of how each of us can lift ourselves above the mundane and enter the realm of melochim once again. The Jewish year is framed by such opportunities – the moadim, the meeting places between man and his Creator – which catapult us into a different dimension.


Recently, we celebrated the Yom Tov ofPesach, contemplating how the Ribbono Shel Olam looked at a broken, overworked, weary nation and saw splendor and beauty when He plucked out goy mikerev goy to make us His own. We learn from this the significance of each individual, the greatness of all of Klal Yisroel as a whole, and the inherent greatness that each one of us possesses.


We dare not forget that lesson in the way we treat people. We also cannot permit those who tarnish our community to define us and cause us to doubt who we are. We are neither parasites nor lazy, neither crooks nor bad citizens. We are a mamleches kohanim, bnei melochim, and the Torah’s definition of us is as true now as it ever was.


Perhaps the reason that the talmidim of Rabi Akiva died during the period following Chag HaPesach is because on Pesach we celebrate the day that the glory of the Jew was revealed and it became evident how much Hashemcherishes each yochid. On Pesach, we saw that Hashem loved us even before we had the Torah. Even before we possessed the refinement that the Torah engenders in us, He lifted us.


This added to the gravity of the mistake made by the talmidim ofRabi Akiva. They didn’t learn the lesson of Pesach and respect each individual Jew. They didn’t appreciate that every one of them was a ben melech, selected and marked for greatness by his King.


At this time of year, we walk along the shore between two lighthouses, two towering reminders of the greatness of Klal Yisroel,Pesach and Shavuos, when we received the ultimate gift, the purpose of creation. How can we not look at each Yid with admiring eyes, seeing him as a chosen one, a receptacle of Hashem’s greatest present?


And perhaps, this Lag Ba’omer, as we dance, with the flickering orange of the fire reflected in joyous eyes and strains of Meron’s clarinets crossing oceans to enliven us as well, we can appreciate the words of the piyut in which we pay tribute to Rabi Shimon bar Yochai: “Na’aseh odom ne’emar baavurecha.”


Hashem’s decision of “Naaseh odom – Let us make man” was realized in Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, the splendid example of tzuras ha’odom, the complete man. But maybe the words have another meaning as well. Na’aseh odom, each of us can become a man, realize our greatness, view ourselves the right way, and view those around us the right way, because of the lesson of Rabi Shimon.


He taught us that we are all bnei melochim. Baavurecha, because of you, Rabi Shimon, we know the truth.


Ashreichem Yisroel.



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